Reports of Painting’s Death Grossly Exaggerated

You know something’s wrong when a work of art appeals solely on a prurient basis. In Body Collage (1967), a

You know something’s wrong when a work of art appeals solely on a prurient basis.

In Body Collage (1967), a performance captured on 16-millimeter film, the artist Carolee Schneeman smears a milky liquid over her naked body and proceeds to roll around in a pile of torn paper scattered on the floor of an industrial loft. The paper sticks to Ms. Schneeman’s body; the camera pans over her glistening contours. Sleek, shapely and beautiful, Ms. Schneeman struts around, displaying her “collage.” Hot stuff.

Body Collage has no redeeming value as cinema: It’s a hapless point-and-shoot endeavor. Those familiar with Ms. Schneeman, a pioneer of feminist art, will know there’s a political subtext afoot. In a 2005 interview, she dubbed Body Collage a “feminization of performative actions that moves around in the culture in odd ways.”

Before you can figure out exactly what that means, Ms. Schneeman offers an analogy between her silky, papered body and the “central representative image” of the Vietnam War: the flayed body. It’s unlikely that anyone who hasn’t read Ms. Schneeman’s pronouncement will grasp the intended volatile content. If anything, they’ll dismiss Body Collage as the jape of a young artist besotted by avant-gardist culture.

For some reason, Body Collage has been included in High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975, an exhibition of abstract painting at the National Academy Museum. Curated by the art critic Katy Siegel, with help from the painter David Reed, the show aims to “recover experimental painting and its context.”

High Times, Hard Times has traveled to North Carolina and Washington, D.C., with additional venues to be announced. It would be interesting to find out what audiences in those cities made of it. As the title makes clear, the exhibition is New York–centric, but at what price to intelligibility, let alone aesthetic pleasure? To derive much of anything from the ephemera on display calls for some working knowledge of lower Manhattan and, not least, the specialized arguments in which artists were engaged at the time.

“Streets and Studios,” Mr. Reed’s introductory essay for the catalog, is a rueful valentine to a city and a milieu that’s been altered, perhaps forever, by a voracious real-estate market. He fondly recalls ambitious artists, heady conversation, informal get-togethers, cheap and spacious lofts, and a fair bit of drinking. A “wonderful … urban social interaction” took place in the empty streets of pre–Pottery Barn Soho, a place where an artist “dressed to look like a bum” to avoid getting mugged.

The scene was no stranger to the era’s sometimes colorful, often dangerous political foment and relentless questioning of hierarchies and norms. A wall label informs us that the art of painting “seemed to have hit a dead end” and was “obsolete,” yet, paradoxically, a “new day [was] … dawning.” (You can almost hear the chorus of “Let the Sunshine In” filtering through the National Academy’s august halls.) Painters would create “dynamic experiences” that would “draw the viewer into the art, rather than hold you at a polite arm’s length.”

“A polite arm’s length”—what a curious phrase. Certainly the artists featured in High Times, Hard Times were reacting against Abstract Expressionism and the Color Field painters endorsed by that perpetual arch-villain Clement Greenberg, as well as, from the sound of it, the history of world art. Perhaps their purview didn’t extend much beyond the pages of Artforum and the bar stools at Fanelli’s, though. Did these artists believe that, say, Velázquez kept viewers at a “polite arm’s length”? If so, more’s the pity.

High Times, Hard Times shows how an insular societal subset responded when threatened by “radical” and (here’s the kicker) attention-getting artistic currents—Minimalism, Conceptualism, performance art and video. It’s filled with patches of fabric, slabs of paint, “flower power” abstractions, “performative actions” and other bric-a-brac.

The death of painting was part of the conventional wisdom of the time. Painters who gave credence to that hoary notion were oblivious to the possibilities inherent in the long history of their own craft. That they accepted it as the truth is a sad joke. Is it any wonder painters hid behind politics, theory and world-weary sophistication?

What we get at the National Academy are small ideas wrapped in big packages. Ostensibly out to reinvent and revitalize painting, these artists ended up diminishing it. How to resuscitate the art of painting? Pull apart its constituent components (stretchers, canvas, edges, color, composition and materials) and keep them apart—or make videos. What an appalling lack of imagination.

Maybe you had to be there. A handful of artists—Lynda Benglis, Manny Farber, Louise Fishman, Harriet Korman and Mr. Reed—would discover aspects of art-making that place their current efforts galaxies away from the over-intellectualized folderol of High Times, Hard Times. You have to wonder, though: If these savvy veterans were rattled by the circumscribed art world of the late 1960’s, what lessons do they have for painters facing today’s expanding multimedia omniverse?

High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975 is at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until April 22.

Reports of Painting’s Death Grossly Exaggerated